Exactly halfway through the Gospel of Mark, Jesus popped the above question to his disciples. They had been with him long enough to see countless miracles, to hear the words of salvation, and to truly get a sense who Jesus is through being with him on a daily basis. But things would start getting difficult from now on– Jesus would tell them three times that he will suffer, die, and be raised. They would also see their Lord being taken away in the Garden of Gethsemane – and in order to be able to pass these challenges, they had to give an honest answer to that question. For if their understanding of his person or his mission is off, they would not be able to carry the heavy burden of witnessing his passion and death. Indeed, what we see is that they were not able to endure that most painful event; all the disciples fled when Jesus needed them most, because they still did not truly know him.
But did Peter not truthfully answer the question, “You are the Messiah”? If he was speaking on behalf of the others, as he usually did, did they not know who he is? Sad as it is, it is obvious that they still did not grasp Jesus’ true identity. Recognizing that Jesus was the Messiah was not enough because their understanding of who a Messiah is supposed to be was skewed. It was obvious to the Jews at that time – including the disciples – that the Messiah was supposed to be a royal figure, a conquering warlord who would set Israel free from Rome. He was indeed expected to work miracles, as he was an anointed one of God and God’s favour rested upon him; he was also expected to preach righteousness because he was to live out the Law of Moses blamelessly. So far so good, up to the mid-point of the Gospel. But Jesus would challenge them to purge their misunderstanding of the Messiah's identity.
You may have also noticed that Jesus tried to keep his identity secret up until this point. Scholars refer to this as the “Messianic secret”. From this point on, however, Jesus will no longer hide his identity. This is an interesting shift, as it all comes down to peoples’ understanding of “Messiah”. Jesus cannot tolerate a skewed image of the Messiah. The wonder worker, warrior and king Messiah is a false one. The complete picture must include the “suffering servant” from the Book of Isaiah and the “Lamb of God” from the Book of Exodus. As Jesus began to speak of his up and coming passion, the fullness of the Messianic identity was revealed. The suffering servant and the royal king are inseparable, and they are the two sides of the same coin. This is the greatest challenge for the disciples, and the challenge was unfortunately too great for them.
What does this pericope have to do with us in the 21st century? I decided to write about this topic because I have been made aware of our own skewed images of God. Here are some that we have often embraced as we advance in our spiritual life:
- God as Santa Claus – we are good in order to receive blessings and “rewards” from God. What happens when we’re good and we don’t get what we want?
- God as Sergeant Major – we are the obedient soldiers in the battlefield. We take orders from God: our relationship to God is characterized by rigidity and distance.
- God as the Judge – God is constantly in our midst as a judge, waiting to condemn us for each sin we commit and bring upon us punishment in the here and now.
- God as Spoilsport – God hates pleasure; therefore he also wants us to hate the pleasures of our lives. We become suspicious of joy in our spiritual lives.
- God as Master Architect – we are concerned about fulfilling our “duty” toward God in his master plan. We try to “fit the plan” and so our actions are wholly governed by duty rather than love.
- God as Tyrant Slave Driver – our relationship to God is like that of a slave to his master: cold, abusive, deprived of any real communication/relationship.
The best way to go about answering Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” is to get to know Jesus by praying your way through the Gospels and by being conscious of how different our own view of Jesus is from that presented in the Gospels. And as we develop a consistent prayer life, we then should take a look at the fruits of our prayer: how does our prayer change the way we go about our day? Are we being drawn closer to God (consolation) or further away from God (desolation)? The fruits of our prayer often speak to the frankness and authenticity of our prayer experience. In order to take up this great task, however, we desperately need the Lord’s Grace to be able to embrace the true image while reject the false one we’ve built up for ourselves throughout the years, so it may be a painful endeavour. Godspeed!